Why Big Body Play is Important for Children

By Zaina Cahill

By Zaina Cahill of Children’s Village 

Frances Carlson, the author of Big Body Play, identifies it as the “very physical, vigorous, boisterous, and sometimes bone-jarring play style that many children love and crave.” Examples include children throwing themselves onto and off of furniture or equipment, wrestling, and so forth.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) endorses this type of play in Early Childhood Education, as it is a large support for children’s developing skills in all domains, especially social-emotional and linguistic thinking. For instance, through practice with active play, children gain an understanding of themselves in space, learn how to manage and control their own bodies based on how their body can impact that of another, explore verbal and nonverbal communication, and practice turn taking. As a result, more opportunities for active play lead to more opportunities for quiet, focused engagement, as children expel excess energy during their Big Body Play periods and are better able to attend to more cognitive tasks.

One of the main ways that teachers and caregivers can identify Big Body Play, rather than aggression, is by looking at children’s faces. Are they smiling, laughing, and talking as their bodies interact with each other? Or are they red, perhaps with an angry or exasperated expression on their faces? The latter would, of course, denote a problem. However, teachers are much more likely to see the former when this practice is utilized in the classroom.

What types of materials promote Big Body Play?

Big Body Play activities can take place both indoors and outdoors. Regardless of the environment, it is important that teachers remember to supervise children engaged in this type of play by both sight and sound. Additionally, they are encouraged to join in on this type of play, as teachers can gain information about children’s abilities in various domains and adjust the space and/or activity when necessary. Plus, it’s fun!

1.      One of the essential active play materials that I’ve found is a simple classroom mat which is easy enough to fold up and store but cushioned enough to allow for safe active play. Children enjoy tumbling, wrestling, and rolling on top of each other on these types of mats.

2.      An active play set will provide children with a variety of materials to engage with, allowing them to practice gross motor skills through throwing, catching, crawling, and hopping.

3.      A structured movement game or this bingo game often provides an easy transition into Big Body Play for teachers who are not accustomed to it and may be nervous about trying it out at first.

4.      Toys that wobble give children an independent movement activity that improves balance, stability, and core strength.

5.      Sensory balls provide sensory input to children as they use them but can also be used for other tactile experiences in the classroom–like a massage!

That being said, it’s important to remember that children need minimal materials to engage in Big Body Play, as toys only enhance the already natural experience. They simply need teachers to supervise and engage in this child-directed activity,  a dedicated open space for big body movement, and an understanding between educators and families of the importance and significance of this kind of play in the classroom.


Zaina Cahill is the Early Childhood Director of Children’s Village, a large culturally and linguistically diverse childcare center in Center City, Philadelphia. A graduate of New York University (B.S. in ECE and Special Education) and Walden University (M.S.Ed. in Elementary Reading and Literacy), Zaina has been in the field for nearly 12 years, working in a variety of capacities from substitute to lead teacher and on into administration.  Zaina holds a Level 2 teaching certification in the state of Pennsylvania and is a member of NAEYC’s Young Professionals Advisory Council (YPAC) and Membership Engagement Committee, DVAEYC’s Membership Advisory Council, and Becker’s Advisory Council. In addition to her contributions to the Becker’s Blog, she has also contributed to the NAEYC blog and its print publication, Teaching Young Children.

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